does anyone remember what it was like to be bored?
As a kid, being painstakingly bored was a common predicament. Yet as the internet becomes more ubiquitous, we’ve been reprogrammed to absorb information 24/7. What are we missing out on when our attention spans last only until the next notification...
"I really haven't had that exciting of a life," said Kurt Cobain in one of his most famous quotes. "There are a lot of things I wish I would have done, instead of just sitting around and complaining about having a boring life. So I pretty much like to make it up. I'd rather tell a story about someone else." Cobain was the figurehead for Generation X, the "slacker" generation — the kids portrayed in Richard Linklater's film of the same name as, "young and unambitious, from the enthusiastically eccentric to the dangerously apathetic. Here, the nobly lazy can eschew responsibility in favor of nursing their esoteric obsessions." We'd definitely be in a very different place today if the slacker generation hadn't got bored enough to make up stories and nurse their esoteric obsessions into something like Nirvana.
Painstaking boredom was such a part of growing up (at least for those born pre-millennium). Before the internet and mobile phones took over, there was nothing to do but let your mind wander on long car journeys, delayed flights, and rainy Sundays. Today however, in a world where you're mentally prodded with a message, email, like, <3, share, news update, or Snapchat every few minutes (join a few WhatsApp groups and the stakes are raised to a ping a minute), is it still possible to experience those intense periods of boredom you used to know as a kid? We can scroll through our online feeds until we're bored and log off, but five minutes later we'll log back on — because we're bored — to see what new, exciting things have happened in those precious (or not so precious) five minutes. "We live in a hectic, hyperactive, over-stimulated age," writes academic Eva Hoffman, in her book How to be Bored. "Since the introduction of the internet and digital technologies, we have infinite quanta of information, visual imagery, personal communication, and impersonal text available to us anywhere and at any time."
We'd definitely be in a very different place today if the slacker generation hadn't got bored enough to make up stories and nurse their esoteric obsessions into something like Nirvana.
When was the last time you actually turned your phone off? When was the last time you walked down the street without your headphones plugged in? Or fell asleep without your laptop playing whatever series you're currently working your way through to drown out any scary existential thoughts that might set in around bedtime when you've got nothing else to distract you? Or watched a whole movie without checking your Instagram just once? Everyone knows that if something's not posted online, you can question whether it ever really happened, and so now, everything that happens IRL is reinvented as a sexier version of itself online. Where FOMO used to be limited to the parties you didn't get invited to, for the modern generation, it encompasses everything that happens on the internet. Who knows what you've missed out on if you haven't checked Facebook, Instagram, or even BBC News for one whole day?
While the constant barrage of information means there's no excuse for being ignorant about what's going on in the world around you, as Hoffman writes, "too often, we consume culture in the spirit of — well, consumerism." Body-language expert Dr Harry Witchel has even predicted that computers in the future will be able to keep us permanently engaged by keeping tabs on how bored we are based on how much we fidget, and immediately do something to eradicate the tedium. Having a smartphone that's smarter than we are means having absolutely nothing to do is a distant, distant memory that Generation Z will never know.
But what affect does this current climate of over-stimulation, instant gratification, and voiceless communication have on our psyche? Can you tell the difference between really relaxing and just killing time by scrolling through your newsfeed? In some places, digital addiction has become a recognized mental affliction. In countries like South Korea and China (which, at 632 million, has the biggest number of internet users in the world), military-style detox bootcamps have sprung up across the land to "deprogram" addicted adolescents. Stories have surfaced of teenage boys — the biggest demographic of web junkies — bragging about spending 300 consistent hours playing the online role-playing video game World of Warcraft, wearing diapers to avoid toilet breaks, and attacking their parents when they try to pry them away from the flickering screen in front of them. Admittedly, the average person's internet addiction is probably not so extreme. But can you deny that if your parents confiscated your phone right now, you wouldn't be pissed?
For those of us who don't spend twelve and a half days shooting virtual arrows at virtual orcs in the virtual world, our online obsession is more akin to the previously mentioned newsfeed fixation. Hoffman argues that, "after a while, incessant activity can leave us feeling depleted and oddly undernourished, as if the experiences we have been through have not taken root, or become part of ourselves." All these tiny, abbreviated snippets of information that a Facebook status or Twitter update give us might keep us in the know, but when our attention spans last only until the next notification, we can come away after an hour online feeling unfulfilled and thinking we might as well have done absolutely nothing for that time. Really though, we might as well have.
While going offline can be a scary thought, the fact is that even if you haven't shared your most intimate thoughts with your 1000-strong online network, it did really happen. Your followers might not know that, but your real life friends will.
"Boredom is a fascinating emotion because it is seen as so negative yet it is such a motivating force," psychologist Dr Sandi Mann writes in The Psychologist magazine. Boredom might have got a bad rep — you know the saying "only boring people get bored"? Recent studies have shown that actually, it's when people are truly bored that the most creative ideas flourish. If you're staring at a screen all day and information constantly flowing, you're never going to be unequivocally bored. If you aren't ever doing absolutely nothing, your mind won't wander, you won't daydream, and you won't get lost in thoughts you otherwise wouldn't have thought.
We once got an Out of Office from Diesel's Artistic Director, the man behind #DIESELREBOOT, and Tumblr dilettante Nicola Formichetti stating that he couldn't answer our email because he was on a "digital detox." Perhaps all internet users should go on one, because if we're not bored, we're going to become boring. It's only when you peel yourself away from all the online stimuli that you can form an opinion that is truly your own — not just one that is justified by amount of likes you receive on Facebook. While going offline can be a scary thought, the fact is that even if you haven't shared your most intimate thoughts with your 1000-strong online network, it did really happen. Your followers might not know that, but your real life friends will.
We've all been rewired to live extremely busy lives in which being bored is not an option — why waste time when there's always more, more, more you could be absorbing into your already brimming bank of knowledge? "The conflicts, catastrophes, triumphs, and ordinary human struggles in all parts of the globe enter our lives via vivid images on television screens or on those smaller ones," writes Hoffman of our interconnected, complex world. But what use is it if you rush through each new morsel of information without reflecting on it or thinking about why you're doing it? There's so much out there that by the time you've skimmed through all of yesterday's headlines and moved on to today's, everything you've taken in can seem like old news.
Going back to that existential dread that can tend to set in around bedtime, one way to get rid of it and live meaningfully could be to go offline, be bored, and actually think about what you're doing instead of stalling yourself with daily mundane tasks and digital distractions. Have you ever had a better excuse to do absolutely fuck all?
Text Felicity Kinsella
Image via Flickr